Archives For migration

Fall Migration is Here!

Many species we don't normally see are moving through our area

Carol Freeman —  September 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

Twice a year we are blessed with the migration of birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Many species that we don’t normally see (or don’t see in large numbers) are now moving through the Chicago area. Each day is a mystery as to what I might come across.

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries. ©Carol Freeman

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries.
©Carol Freeman

Today I chose to head over to McDonald Woods. Before I could even get to the path, I was greeted by red-eyed vireos. I stayed there and watched them for some time. One thing I have learned is to photograph birds wherever I see them, and to avoid the impulse to assume I’ll find more birds, or better birds, elsewhere. Just because the birds are hopping here doesn’t mean they will be hopping everywhere: best to take advantage of the birds wherever they are, even if it’s just the parking lot.

Only when the activity slowed did I head into the woods to see what else might be there. Right away, I saw some movement up high. Yep, warblers. I could tell by the flash of the tail feathers that these were redstarts. My instinct is to try to focus on any bird that moves. However, another thing I have learned is to resist the urge to photograph birds up high and backlit. The best photos are taken at eye-level. I look for movement and listen for bird calls to help me find a likely place to get some good photos. When I do, I relax and wait. Yes, wait. It might take 15 or 20 minutes for the birds to filter down. It is tempting to try to find the birds, or to follow them, but all that tends to do is send the birds higher up.

I was ready when this little one came back to it's favorite perch. ©Carol Freeman

I was ready when this little one came back to its favorite perch.
©Carol Freeman

After just a few minutes, I see a young warbler hopping in the lower branches. I get a few shots before it takes off. Then, in zooms a hummingbird. The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they will often come back to the same perch over and over again. So I slowly move toward where this little one is sitting. Just as I get close, it takes off. So I position myself with a good view of the perch, and wait. Yes, there is that word again. Trust me, the “wait” will be worth it! Soon the hummingbird is back, and yes, it lands right on the same perch, and I’m able to get some really nice shots. Learning about the habits of birds comes in handy. If I did not know that the hummingbird would be back, I would not have been ready to take the photo when it got there. One way to learn about the habits of birds is to hang out and chat with birders. I like to go on bird walks with them and read bird books when I can.

When I’m waiting for warblers and other migrants, I like to practice my photography skills on the more common and perhaps slower-moving birds. It’s a way to make sure that my camera is set properly, and it helps me get comfortable with my equipment choices for the day. If I can’t take an amazing photo of a common bird, it is unlikely that I will take an amazing shot of a tiny, quick-moving rarity. Practice is key! For bird photography, I like to use my 80-400mm lens, but anything over 200mm will work. I keep my shutter speed at 1/400 of a second or faster. Sometimes that means upping my ISO to get the faster shutter speed. Otherwise these little birds will be big blurs.

What a treat to see so many of these buzzing around the garden today.  ©Carol Freeman

What a treat to see so many hawk moths (also called sphinx moths) buzzing around the garden today.
©Carol Freeman

I have to keep an open mind. Even though I might really want to photograph a yellow-winged warbler, what I might get instead is a blue jay, or not even a bird at all. Sometimes my best “bird” shot of the day is a butterfly. Or like today, I was treated to dozens of hawk moths! I’ve never seen so many in one spot, and what amazed me most was how many people walked right past them! They were so focused on something else, they missed what I thought was the coolest migrant of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with one intention and came back with shots of something I could have never predicted—all because I kept an open mind to all the wonders that are out there to discover. There will be a stream of migrants visiting Chicago through November, and I hope you can get out and enjoy the amazing wonders that the autumn migration will bring right to you.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

For the Love of Ducks

Carol Freeman —  March 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

Spring is here, although it might not feel that way. The days are getting longer and the ducks are migrating through Chicago on their way to the breeding grounds in the north. A few will stay around all summer, but most are here only for a short visit. Now is a great time to see a delightful variety of waterfowl.

PHOTO: view of ducks from the prairie.

Looking North from the Dixon Prairie, you can see many ducks. ©Carol Freeman

 

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Male and female redhead ducks. ©Carol Freeman

The Chicago Botanic Garden is a perfect place for the ducks to stop during their migration. They look for any open water they can find. The south end of the Garden near the prairie is one of the best places to look for them. I take the paths that are closest to the open water, and walk very slowly so as not to alarm them. If I’m careful, the ducks will only swim to the far side, but not fly away. Patience is key. I like to sit down, get very still, and wait for the ducks to get used to me being there. This might take 20 to 30 minutes…did I mention, patience is key! Sometimes I sit for 30 minutes and the ducks never get any closer. Occasionally new ducks will fly in and I can get a few shots before they realize I’m there and swim off. This is what makes duck photography so challenging.

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Trumpeter swan leading the way. ©Carol Freeman

 

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All the ducks swimming my way. ©Carol Freeman

On a recent visit to the garden, I had one of those magical moments that you always wish for as a photographer. I was sitting still, hoping the ducks on the far side of the pond would make their way a bit closer for some photos. As I was waiting, a single resident swan swam straight toward me. So I took a few shots. Then, I noticed one of the ducks starting to follow the swan. Cool! So I took some shots of the duck. Then I noticed that ALL the ducks were swimming in my direction. Wow! I must have had 15 ducks all around me. They apparently deemed me to be okay once their swan friend showed confidence in being around me. They kept a watchful eye, and every time I moved my camera for a shot, the ducks backed off a bit.

Then, just as mysteriously as it came, the swan swam away, taking all the ducks with it, and I was left basking in their trust and in the glow of that moment, realizing just how rare it is and how lucky I was.

Since the ducks are migrating through, I never know what I’m going to see from one day to the next. That is really the fun part for me. In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen hooded merganser, red-breasted merganser, common merganser, lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, redhead duck, coot, northern shoveler, common goldeneye, canvasback, and gadwall.

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A lesser scaup and coot make a close pass. ©Carol Freeman

There will be a stream of ducks from now through April. So get out and see what you can find. And if you are patient and lucky, you might be graced with a magical moment of your own!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Bird-Nesting Bag

Kathy J. —  March 16, 2013 — 1 Comment

Spring is here and the birds are returning from their winter homes. Some birds fly through the Chicago area to their nesting habitats up north, while others return and stay in the area.

Spring is the season for laying eggs, because it gives the juvenile birds all summer to mature and become strong before they need to migrate in the fall. Also, as spring turns to summer, the growing chicks require more food. The trees grow leaves, insects hatch, fruits ripen, and other food sources become more plentiful. The birds’ habits are perfectly synchronized with the seasons. 

At this time of year, recently returned birds will be looking for material to build a nest and lay eggs. You can provide some bling for a lucky bird family with a few things you have around your home.

You will need items including these:

  • A plastic netting or mesh bag, like the kind oranges and apples are sold in
  • Scraps of yarn or strips of fabric cut 1/4 inch wide and at least 6 inches long (longer is fine)
  • Optional — dryer lint, metallic thread, any other attractive loose materials
PHOTO: supplies to build a nesting bag

Let’s put this empty apple bag and some leftover fabric scraps to good use!

Put all of the scrap materials into the mesh bag. Tease out the ends of the material through the holes in the netting all around the bag so it looks like a bundle of loose stuff. Tie the top of the bag. Hang the bag securely on a tree branch where a bird can perch and pluck pieces of material from the bag.

PHOTO: The finished nesting bag

Wall art or condo furnishings? Hang your bag outside and watch for birds!

Now you will be ready for International Migratory Bird Day, which is Saturday, May 11, this year. Watch the bag for signs that a bird is using the material. Look around your neighborhood for nests to see if any bird used the materials to build its nest. And have a happy bird day!

PHOTO: our bird nesting bag in situ

Let’s see where our fabric scraps end up this spring…

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

All animals that inhabit this area, including humans, have to cope with the changing of the seasons. There are four basic responses to the cooler temperature and shorter daylight. Which is your favorite strategy for surviving the winter?

Do you eat more food during this time of year, loading up on high calorie goodies? You may be a Snacker. It is a natural instinct. You are like the squirrels, rabbits, and some birds that fatten up and keep going all winter long.  

 

PHOTO: a gray squirrel poses as it feeds on bird seed dropped from a bird feeder.

Squirrels fatten up on seeds and stay active all winter long.

Do you travel to warmer climates during the winter? Wings are not required to be a Flapper. Count yourself in the company of warblers, monarch butterflies, and herons if you leave the area in winter. You may be migrating to escape the cold, but these animals are generally traveling to find more plentiful supplies of food.

Do you become sleepy and hibernate for four or five months every year? Then you are a Sleeper, like a bear, turtle, or frog. These animals undergo physical changes that shut down their respiratory systems and metabolism during the winter. You are probably not a true sleeper, even if it sounds appealing.

PHOTO: This bronze model of a painted turtle on a rock can be seen a Kleinman Family Cove yearround.

This bronze turtle can be seen all year at the Kleinman Family Cove, while the real turtles are hibernating in the mud at the bottom of the lake in winter.

If you are prone to feeling tired and sleeping more in the winter, then it’s more likely that you are a Napper. Animals like skunks and opossum cozy up in burrows or under deep piles of leaves and sleep. Occasionally they emerge, find something to eat, and then go back to bed.

PHOTO: A small skunk is feeding on squirrel corn on a dark winter evening.

A skunk wakes up from its nap and feeds on some seeds during a winter evening.

 

PHOTO: A baby opossum is seen in the snow surrounded by dormant plant stalks.

Like the skunk, this baby opossum emerged from its nap and is looking for something to eat before it returns to its shelter.

Snacker, Flapper, Sleeper, Napper — try to say that three times fast as you prepare for another midwestern winter!


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I love Warblers! They are amazing and beautiful little birds. They migrate thousands of miles each year. A few of these jewels breed in the Chicago area, but most only pass through for just a few weeks each spring and fall on their way to breeding grounds. I marvel at their journey. They fly when the winds are favorable, and look for green spaces to spend the day fueling up on insects before heading out again for the next leg of their journey. I can only imagine how good the Chicago Botanic Garden must look to these tired birds as they approach the city. It’s a green oasis with trees, prairies and water.

My choices of possible warbler locations in the Garden are many. Mary Mix McDonald Woods, near the entrance, is a likely place to spot many birds so I head there first. As I approach, I’m greeted by a lovely female cardinal – a nice start to my walk. I slow my pace. Many birds can be found along the edges of the woods, and I don’t want to scare them off. I walk in a few feet and I hear the chirps of white-throated sparrows, another migrating bird. After a few minutes I see the flittering of small birds. Yes, here are my beloved warblers. They are first-year yellow-rumped warblers, hopping from tree to tree picking off bugs. One poses just long enough for me to focus and fire off a few shots. Another migrating bird makes a brief appearance, the Brown Creeper, scooting quickly up one tree and then another. I hear a call from the top of the trees. I focus my camera lens on the sound to find a yellow-bellied sapsucker. So many birds, and I have yet to make it off the first bridge! – All this in less than half an hour! I am anxious to see what else is around, so I start walking the paths. The rest of the woods are surprisingly quiet. I remind myself that when the birds are “hopping,” THAT is the place to be. It is not “better” someplace else. It’s good lesson in life as well. The grass is not greener on the other side!

I hope to see more warblers before the fall is over. There will be birds moving through for weeks to come. A good time to check for warblers is after a night of winds from the north. The birds will fly with the wind and will drop down onto the Garden in the morning. The woods, prairie, and top of the waterfall garden are all great places to check for new arrivals.

Warblers move so fast and are often hidden behind leaves and branches. It is a real treat for me when I get a good shot of these tiny birds. I probably toss 2/3 of all the shots I take. The best advice I can give to you is to get out often and to practice as much as you can. It WILL be worth it!

Photo shot with a Nikon D300s camera, Nikon 80-400mm lens, hand-held, 1/500, f7.1, ISO 800.
©2012 Carol Freeman